College Athletics Paradoxes and Ponderings

James Michener wrote Sports in America in 1976.   He observed, then, that the United States is the only country that charges higher education with entertaining the public (via athletic programs).   Surely education versus capitalism (or “the market”) presents a paradox for colleges and universities.   This conundrum has existed for more than a century and still we struggle with how to make it work reasonably.

Our local 2013 example of these problems was the highly publicized UNC-Chapel Hill bogus courses, used primarily for athletic eligibility.   Oddly, one of our national leaders for reform in athletics was UNC-CH former chancellor Dr. Bill Friday.  Dr. Friday, and the Knight Commission together had forewarned of the dangers of uncontrolled athletic programs.

What seems paradoxical, and sad, is that while we speak passionately of reform, we continue to yield to the dollar.

The freedom of the market seems very American.   I don’t doubt that Coach K is worth 9.7 million dollars annually for Duke University.   Quickly the Duke people would contest, “the university itself benefits by more than this amount plus the salary comes, in large portion, from outside the university coffers”.   While in this instance, that may be true, are others not forced the ante-up in a nuclear arms race-like spending war?   Associate head football coaches making 2 million?

Want to know where the less fortunate schools find such monies?   From the student body!   Are we not reaching a point of diminishing returns when college debt exceeds all national credit card debt?   When annual college/university costs exceed $70,000 per year, what sense does a “liberal arts” degree make?   Especially for those who have the current economic situation to guide their decisions.   There is a huge portion of the student body saying “Hey, I’m not interested in paying for athletic excess.   Community college a  more reasonable option? No sense in a liberal arts degree?   Forget unreasonable athletic schools, I need a job!”   Is uncontrolled athletic expense going to cost us liberal arts education and/or the valuable lessons of reasonable collegiate programs.

There are lots of ideas floating around:  Stipends for athletics?  AAU basketball influences?   High school “recruiting” that often eliminates any chance of good neighborhood teams winning…or even trying.

Ask any old-timer about stipends for athletics.   They’ll say, “No, they are getting a scholarship.” But how much is Johnny Football worth to Texas A&M?   How about Cam Newton and Auburn.   The stipend ($2000) was voted in by the NCAA.   Then voted out.   Would it not escalate to $20,000 soon and thus be affordable to the much discussed “Super 60” only?

One local decision scares me too: UNC-Wilmington just dropped 5 athletic programs.   They seemed to be 5 of their most successful programs, albeit “non-revenue” sports.   Often I am asked by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) to write support letters to schools who are dropping collegiate tennis programs, or are about to.

What about proximity in college athletics?   Syracuse in the Atlantic Coast Conference?   Pittsburgh?   What happens to the “Big 4” rivalries?   Elon, my former employer, has opted for the Colonial Conference over the Southern Conference. Travel looks to me to be much more.   Who suffers from distance?   Those who can’t afford to fly, ie: the women and the “non-revenue” programs.   What happens to study time, eaten up by travel time?   Ask Campbell University’s  coaches, who just “came in from the cold!”   They were in a league with teams in 11 different states!   How is that a reasonable conference?   Maybe it’s just me, but I loved the “southerness” of the Southern Conference.   No need to fly anywhere. Believe me, with no TV revenue, and travel out the wazoo, these programs and people take big blows.

Higher education in the future needs some stout leaders.   Bob Dylan says, “Money doesn’t talk. It swears.”   Presidents and Chancellors and Athletic Directors can’t say “We didn’t know”,  anymore.   If they don’t know they are just as culpable.   It’s that big, and threatens the whole ball of wax.  There is a lot of fat in higher education.   From athletics, to faculty job loads, to sabbaticals, to minimal output by tenured  faculty, to excessive administrative  positions,  to phony academic courses and grades..

P.S.     On weather!    I am old enough to remember when college spring schedules ended at the end of May.    Now many schools end in mid April with conference playoffs coming  as early as the first or second weekend of the month.  Play was in April  and May with practice starting in March.   Now play is often in February and March, with practice in January.   March 1 now is about midseason.   This  spring in  North  Carolina there were very few contests played in warm, spring weather.

I coached 40 years in four different conferences:  Carolinas Conference, South Atlantic Conference,  Big South Conference, and  the Southern Conference.   Rarely did any of these coaches go north to schedule.   Almost  everyone’s schedule featured fine schools from the north coming south on “spring break”.   In the words of the old  Southern comedian, Dave Gardner, “…you ain’t never heard of anyone retiring to the north, have you?”

Baseball in Philadelphia in February or March?   New York,  Boston?   Teams from these areas would tell us “…this trip is the first time we have been  on a field.  Or outdoors.

Consider a couple of other points:  1. Certain sports played in extremely cold weather can cause bad injuries.   Pitchers and tennis players are examples.  2. “Spring Sports” teams aside,  travel in northern areas are much more apt to be more dangerous for all teams.   Ask veteran  basketball coaches  about late nights and bad weather in the dark.  Once you get above about Richmond, Va., it changes.   Forty years of  watching weather have proven that to me.

3. Vans, buses, and planes with loads of college kids are dangerous enough.  Add severe weather often experienced due north, to inexperienced, or young, or ambitious coaches and players, and a recipe for tragedy looms.

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